Fundraising Phenoms: Leonard and Allison Stern

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 Once again, the Sterns’ forward thinking is resulting in vast funds being raised for the society.

Many would assume that Allison Stern’s prominent position as vice chairman for New York’s Wildlife Conservation Society has something to do with her husband Leonard’s dominating presence on the Forbes 400 list. That is not the case. The beautiful blonde society maven has been an animal lover since birth, and found herself naturally drawn to the zoo more than 20 years ago.

“I, myself, have lived here in New York all of my life,” explains Leonard, the savvy billionaire behind Hartz Mountain Industries, one of the largest, privately held real estate companies in the U.S. We are in the Central Park Zoo, the site of the forthcoming Allison Maher Stern Snow Leopard exhibit, which will be revealed during the upcoming Safari Gala on June 10. The Sterns are serving as co-chairs of the annual event. “My wife has lived here since the early ’70s. She’s passionate about the [wildlife] cause, and I don’t think you can be more passionate than starting from the bottom up. When my wife got involved, there were no social connotations, not when she was walking up and down this pathway behind me with a cart trying to explain to people why the monkey is a worthwhile animal to preserve. That’s the way Allison started.”

Allison may have begun at the zoo as a tour guide, but it didn’t take long for the powers that be to recognize her prowess and determination and reward her with promotions. In the subsequent decades, she has consistently worked towards the betterment of one of New York’s finest institutions. Founded as New York’s Zoological Society in 1895, the WCS now operates the Bronx Zoo, New York Aquarium, Central Park Zoo, Queens Zoo, and Prospect Park Zoo. Outside of city limits, the WCS is vested in saving all types of wildlife, namely through science, international conservation, education, and the management of the world’s largest system of urban wildlife parks.

No longer solely a New York institution, the name was changed to reflect the work that the society does on a global scale. “In the past 20 years, our international work has grown so fast,” Allison explains. “It is very diverse and expansive work that we do all around the world. We have projects working with endangered species around the globe. In addition, we brought national park systems—200 acres of parks—into being in the last 20 years. We are wildlife. We are conservation, and we are still a society, which kind of feeds back to the New York Zoological Society. We changed our name to reflect more of what we do now, because conservation is so important. If we don’t conserve what’s out there, there will be nothing left.”

WCS has always been at the forefront of conservation and field research, and today it is actively involved in nearly 300 field programs in more than 50 nations. “We have some of the finest scientists, field biologists, and field vets on the planet,” Allison states.

This does not come cheap, and just as the original construction of the Bronx Zoo in the late 1800s relied on the generosity of wealthy benefactors, the Society is dependent on donations. While the $10 admission fee covers some of the operating costs, as do the grants from the New York government, much of funding comes from private donors and foundations, and, of course, the annual fundraising gala at the Central Park Zoo, which, thanks to Allison’s bravado, is on track to be a huge success this year.

“For 40 years, the gala was held up in the Bronx,” explains Leonard. “Any time anyone involved with the organization had to face the annual gala, they would say, ‘God, do we have to go to that place?’” Allison believed that moving the event to Manhattan would allow the Society to raise larger funds each year, and when Steve Sanderson came on board as president in 2001, she was thrilled to find out he was a fellow advocate for the relocation of the gala. The new location proved to be an instant hit.

It was a $7 million leadership gift to the WCS Gateways to Conservation campaign that resulted in the Allison Maher Stern Snow Leopard exhibit that will open following the gala. (“My husband was so kind to name it in my honor,” says Allison, “since I am a cat person.” “My name is not involved because I never walked up and down as a zoo guide,” Leonard retorts.) The attendees will have a special opportunity for a sneak peek at the fantastic animals that evening before the exhibit opens to the public the following day.

Once again, the Sterns’ forward thinking is resulting in vast funds being raised for the society. The troubled economy is weighing heavy on any fundraiser’s mind, but Leonard suggested direct mailings asking for a $1,000 donation in exchange for a listing in the evening’s program. Donors do not have to attend the gala (where a table is going for $50,000), and many responded positively to the idea. The Sterns raised more than $1 million before invitations were even sent out.

Famed event designer Preston Bailey is creating this year’s gala, which keeps a “less is more” -theme in mind, with Great Performances providing the catering. “The whole idea this year is green, organic, local—showing off the conservation side,” says Allison. “The dinner is all organic food, coming from within 100 miles of New York. Even the Tory Burch gift bags are reusable. Everything that will be in the gift bag will have something to do with conservation, being green, eating green, green coffee. I am even wearing green!”

The goal is to raise $2 million during the evening, which is almost 20 percent of what the zoo brings in through admission tickets each year. Once the invitations go out, the Sterns hope that people are called to action and compelled to make the donation that will allow some of New York’s most treasured institutions to continue to thrive.

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